Scarlet macaws show extent of pre-Columbian trade

Pre-Columbian Costa Rica was not as isolated as some expats think.

There was plenty of warfare, attested to by the legends of the native inhabitants. But just like today the residents were involved in trade. The extensive use of the Chorotega pottery is well known. Costa Rican ceramics have turned up in the Valley of México and beyond.

Now the American Museum of Natural History reports that macaws were important birds in the Chaco Valley culture in northern New Mexico. Research of the 650-room Pueblo Bonito there shows that the birds and Mexican cacao were present there starting in the ninth century.

Ritual use of macaw feathers on prayer sticks, costumes, and masks to communicate prayers to gods is well recorded, noted the museum in an announcement. The acquisition and control of scarlet macaws was likely the province of social and religious elites, it added.

The remains of 30 macaws have been found in Pueblo Bonito, including 14 in a single structure, the museum said.

Using modern  radiocarbon dating the researchers just found that about half the macaw skeletons checked dated from the late 800s to the mid-900s, said the museum.

“By directly dating the macaws, we have demonstrated the existence of long-distance networks throughout much of this settlement’s history,” said Adam Watson, of the museum’s Division of Anthropology. He was lead author on a paper that was published in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Scarlet macaws (Ara macao) have been recovered from many settlements in the U.S. Southwest and attest to the extensive trade routes of the time.

The acquisition of these birds would have been a formidable task, requiring the removal of fledglings from the nest soon after their birth before traveling between 1,800 and 2,500 kilometers (about 1,120–1,550 miles) to Chaco, said the researchers.

Pre-Columbia trade routes are widely seen as inhabited by individuals carrying items on the back for great distances. That may be selling the pre-Columbians short.

Research is continuing at a one-time port called Vista Alegre to document the activities of Maya traders who once paddled massive dugout canoes filled with trade goods from Mexico and Central America. The site is at the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Early Spanish conquerors noted the use by the Mayans of seagoing canoes propelled by 25 paddlers. That might well have been the case on the Pacific where Chorotega pottery was hauled delicately on large canoes to the north.

The Central American trade goods might have been exchanges for such valuables as jade or even foods.

Although the Macaw can be found as far north as southern México, Honduras and Guatemala the larger populations are further south in Costa Rican, Panamá and South America. Researchers did not report establishing a source for the birds found at Pueblo Bonito.

Pueblo Bonito itself is somewhat of a mystery. Archaeologist do not think that the site was a large city but rather a ceremonial center. The complex lacks trash heaps and many burials nearby, although there are about 15 ritual burials within the walls.

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